Sometimes people will tell you they got into their line of work “by accident,” but in Peter Blumenthal’s case, he really did end up as the CEO of Theracycle by accident.
Blumenthal had recently sold his New England-based chain of frame stores, the Frame King, and decided to train for an iron man triathlon. While training, he got hit by a car and broke his neck. “The chance of me surviving was about 5 percent,” recalled Blumenthal. Not only did he survive, but he got use of his hands and legs again and eventually was able to re-train for triathlons.
During recovery, he used a product called Theracycle religiously for six months, an in-home motorized physical therapy bike. Blumenthal credits the bike for getting him back to where he was before the accident. Thus, he pulled a Victor Kiam, who famously bought Remington’s because he liked using the razors. He bought Theracycle because he had loved using it during recovery.
But it wasn’t a gravy train from the get-go. Blumenthal says there was a 10-year period where he couldn’t identify a specific market for the Theracycle. Blumenthal, who had a background in retail with the Frame King, had to learn a lesson about buying what you (don’t) know.
“You should always do something that you know, rather than stuff that you don’t know. So first of all, I bought a manufacturing company, when I knew nothing about manufacturing. Second of all, it was a medical device, I knew nothing about the device industry. And third and probably most importantly, I knew I had been successful, and I had made enough money that I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. So I no longer had that fire in the belly, that I think that we need to succeed.”
One lucky call
For a decade, Blumenthal struggled with getting the Theracycle off the ground and dabbled in other businesses in the meantime. It wasn’t until he received a fortuitous call that changed the direction of the company.
“I got a call from a neuro researcher at the Cleveland Clinic…he was doing a research project on fast-paced exercise on a bicycle to see how it would benefit people with Parkinson’s disease,” says Blumenthal. The researcher was looking for someone who makes a motorized bicycle and since in general, it’s a counterintuitive to a bicycle’s existence, Theracycle was one of the few products in the market.
Theracycle worked with the Cleveland Clinic research team, led by Jay Alberts, PhD, to provide the bikes. Alberts, who works in Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Biomedical Engineering on Parkinson’s research, has become a stark advocate for forced exercise, along with a few other notable researchers. In turn, this has helped Blumenthal find the product’s niche.
“If Dr. Alberts had never called me, I’m not sure what would have happened. I’m not sure if the product would have been successful,” says Blumenthal.
Blumenthal says the biggest challenge the company faces is awareness with Parkinson’s patients and their families. People are skeptical that exercise through a motorized bike would be as effective than deep brain stimulation surgery or medication. There is growing evidence, he says, that vigorous exercise can slow Parkinson’s, although to what degree is still up for debate.
But it’s not just a matter of educating patients though, Blumenthal says. “The big thing is educating the caregivers, both [physical therapists] and occupational therapists and also doctors, that there are other options other than to suggest medication.”
Another challenge is the fact that Medicare considers Theracycle an “exercise company,” not a medical device company. As such, it doesn’t cover its use. Blumenthal says that if it ever happened, he predicts the company would take off like a rocket ship. For now, he says, “we’re happy just to build it right now with only one customer at a time.”
Down the line, Blumenthal sees a wider market beyond patients with Parkinson’s disease (95% of its sales are for people who have the disease). He claims the motorized exercise bike will be able to help people who have had strokes, have diabetes, and suffer from arthritis as well.
It’s weird to cultivate a community where the buyers of a product will never be repeat customers, but that’s exactly what Theracycle is trying to do. “We have people who consider to be raving fans,” Blumenthal says.
Those are the people that will help the company take the next step in its journey. To other CEOs, Blumenthal says you must hasten your brand.
“Do everything that you can do to make sure that people when they hear the name of your product, they have a positive view of it. And we’re doing this by everyone of our customers who has a Theracycle, we feel is basically an advocate and an ambassador for what our product does.”
Read more: Making Innovation A Habit In Your Company